EXCLUSIVE: How technology is revolutionising our approach to autism therapy
Anthony Fager, Board Certified Behaviour Analyst with Circle Care Services, delves into how technology is changing the game for autistic children, and how it is not just about screen time, but the right use of technology that can make a significant impact.
In our modern world, technology has permeated nearly every aspect of our daily lives. This is no different in the field of applied behaviour analysis (ABA), a type of therapy that helps individuals on the autism spectrum improve their social, communication, and emotional skills. Previously, therapists primarily used direct interactions and real-world scenarios to engage and teach. Now, they have access to a broad spectrum of digital tools and interactive platforms, enabling a more dynamic and varied learning experience.
Having worked extensively as a clinical supervisor in autism intervention, I’ve seen first-hand the real-world benefits of integrating technology as a teaching aid in ABA therapy. However, as we embrace the benefits of innovation, we must also navigate the intricacies that come with incorporating digital tools into a field deeply rooted in human interaction.
Technology as a teaching tool
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) describes a wide range of neurodevelopmental conditions that can differ in severity from one individual to another. Common characteristics include deficits in social communication and social reciprocity, as well as behavioural inflexibilities. It is essential to emphasise that the goal of therapy is not to “fix” these individuals but rather to help them lead more fulfilling lives in which they can form friendships, learn new skills, and communicate effectively in social settings.
ABA therapy is a versatile and scientifically supported method for tackling the primary challenges of ASD. It embraces the concept that behaviours are acquired and can thus be altered to encourage positive developments. This occurs through engaging and interactive activities. For example, therapists may use puzzle games to enhance cognitive problem-solving skills or matching exercises to aid in recognising patterns and categories. Role-playing exercises are also integral, such as engaging in back-and-forth dialogue or appropriately expressing emotions. These activities are tailored to suit the individual needs and developmental stages of each person.
What sets modern ABA therapy apart is the integration of technology, which has significantly expanded the repertoire of tools available to therapists. This can be something as simple as a tablet application that trains cognitive abilities or something more complex like using augmented reality technology to improve the client’s response to stimuli.
Regardless of the approach, the value of technology lies in its ability to provide an accessible introduction to skills-building exercises and concepts. This holds particular promise in the field of teletherapy as a method to reach those who may not have easy access to ABA services.
Another benefit of technology is that it can be a great motivator for treatment. For example, perhaps you have a child with a very narrow interest repertoire. For instance, they might only like to talk or think about trains. A therapist might be able to expand their interests by showing them train videos before segueing into something similar like airplanes. That can be a great reinforcer that changes behaviour by leveraging existing interests.
Balancing technology with human interaction
Despite the many real-world benefits that technology can bring for autism intervention, as therapists we must be cognizant of potential challenges. For instance, some children may be so accustomed to using iPads or tablets that these devices have become their sole source of entertainment and socialisation. This can present a barrier for therapists trying to encourage activities beyond screen time. Research indicates that excessive screen exposure can shorten attention spans in typically developing children. Further research will likely show the same is true for children on the autism spectrum.
For this reason, it is vital that therapists keep in mind that, while technology is useful for practicing skills and social interactions, it is only one part of the puzzle. A child still needs to replicate those skills in the real world, which can only come through continued hands-on, face-to-face interactions during therapy sessions.
In other words, technology is a good starting point for introducing a specific topic or exercise in a controlled environment. A good therapist must still do the work of assessing how each child can translate what they’ve learned into real-life situations.
We’re still only at the beginning stages of integrating technology as a teaching aid in ABA therapy. And while research up until now has been promising, more is still needed to refine our approaches and establish best practices.
There are a lot of exciting technologies to look forward to in the years ahead. To me, augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices will likely be the biggest technological asset in the field of ABA therapy. AAC devices include electronic speech-generating devices, and interactive software applications on tablets or smartphones to aid communication for individuals with speech or language challenges. Studies have shown that these devices can be highly beneficial as a communication aid for ASD individuals with speech or language impairment issues.
Another big advancement will be the use of artificial intelligence (AI), which is already helping with the early detection of autism. AI systems are training on vast datasets, including genetic information, behavioural patterns, and speech and language development records to identify subtle markers of ASD. By analysing these complex data sets, AI algorithms can pinpoint early signs of autism with increasing accuracy and speed, long before traditional methods may catch them. As AI technology advances, it promises to offer deeper insights into the varied learning styles and preferences of individuals with ASD, refine therapeutic approaches based on data-driven understanding, and unravel the complex genetic factors contributing to ASD.
Ultimately, I envision a future where technology becomes integral to the way that therapists approach assessing and supporting individuals with ASD, resulting in improved outcomes and enriched quality of life.
That said, the utilisation of technology in ABA therapy must be balanced with traditional human interaction. While technology serves as a valuable tool, it cannot fully replace the crucial human connection and individualised support offered by therapists. As such, therapists must continue to prioritise human interaction alongside technological innovations to ensure comprehensive and effective interventions for individuals on the autism spectrum.